- Crowds and Politics in North Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya by Andrea Khalil
Drawing on theories of crowds—as elaborated by such scholars as George Rudé, Elias Canetti, Hannah Arendt, E. P. Thompson, Ervand Abrahamian, and Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt—Andrea Khalil seeks to explain dynamics and developments in Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia. The chapters on Libya and Tunisia focus on events during and after the Arab Spring protests, while the chapter on Algeria puts the spotlight on 1988–89. Khalil is interested in the politics of noninstitutional actors; she is sympathetic to crowd politics and notes that crowds are always confrontational in their performance of power relations, although she concedes in passing that a crowd may be violent and fascist.
Khalil first introduces her classification of crowds in the Arab Spring: political crowds (heterogeneous and homogeneous); nonpolitical crowds (consumer, sports, religious); invisible crowds (Internet, tribal, the ghosts of martyrs). The first chapter in her slim book elaborates on crowd theory, showing its evolution from Gustav Le Bon’s notion of irrational and unruly crowds to the more recent presentation of the “person-as-crowd” (16). She states that crowds exhibit emotions, such as anger, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, joy, exhilaration, unity, and bonding, and a sense of purpose. The book proceeds with a chapter on each of the three case-study countries.
Among the strengths of the book are Khalil’s detailed descriptions of events in the three countries, including her observations and interviews. She writes very well: “The crowd resembled a desert space, open and inhabited by a moving nomadic population whose interaction prompted a constantly changing shape” (60). She brings her considerable literary analytic knowledge to bear on the discussion of Assia Djebar on the Algeria war of liberation. The Libya chapter shows sympathy for the “revolutionaries,” although she cites survey data on the subsequent entrenchment of sex segregation and the exceedingly [End Page 227] conservative nature of Libyan society on such issues as the hijab and the role of the state in enforcing it.
I should point out that I contributed a foreword to an issue of the Journal of North African Studies on women, gender, and the Arab Spring (vol. 19, no. 2, March 2014), guest-edited by Khalil. It is an excellent compilation, and Khalil’s own article on Tunisia is a detailed and original analysis of women’s roles in the revolution and the transitional government. Her expertise on Tunisia comes across in Crowds and Politics, too. But aspects of the book’s overall analysis are problematic.
First, it is not clear why Khalil focused on crowds rather than on social movements or revolutions or other types of mobilization, with which most of the literature on the Arab Spring has dealt. There is no discussion of why crowd theory has more explanatory power, given that it tends to preclude an analysis of social classes or politicized social strata. Khalil refutes the role of intellectuals and trade unions in the political protests (28) and writes of North Africa that “there are no classes essentially determined by control of means of production as there are perhaps in modern post-industrial capitalist societies” (31). However, she approvingly cites the position of the historian and Algeria specialist Hugh Roberts that the 1988 Algeria protests over the free market policies of Chadli Bendjedid opened the door to contestation from the Front Islamist du Salut, though the Islamist party did not address or contest the structural adjustment policies, given that they “oppose[d] state intervention and regulation and nationalization and generally side[d] with the law of the market against the paternalistic and redistributive impulses of the state” (34). Others too have noted that Islamist parties are generally accepting of laissez-faire capitalist political economy. The point is that the presence of such a capitalist economy presupposes social classes in relation to either private or state ownership of the means of production and that this pertains to all modern states in the global economy, including those...